Turkey’s 2023 Elections: The Day After
from Middle East Program

Turkey’s 2023 Elections: The Day After

Originally published at The National Interest

May 15, 2023 9:43 am (EST)

Article
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

On May 14, Turks will be going to the polls in one of the more consequential elections of this year. Turkey is a critical country, and the competing alliances and leaders promise distinct solutions and approaches to awaiting challenges.

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This is the first in a series of articles analyzing the consequences of the different electoral outcomes. I start with a possible defeat of the incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). This starting choice reflects neither an expectation nor a preference. However, the fact is that tumultuous days await Turkey if Erdogan were to be defeated after a twenty-year reign. This is because the Turkish polity is deeply divided and polarized and needs a well-defined road map for a political transition. Moreover, the structural political changes pledged by the opposition coalition led by the Republican People’s Party (RPP) and its head, Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, represent a complete regime transformation. 

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The transition will be challenging as the new government will be confronting three immediate problems: the economy, the status of state institutions, and governing amidst disarray at all levels of society and politics. The most pressing one is the dire economic situation caused by mismanagement and exacerbated by the devastating February 6 earthquake. Therefore, the government must quickly introduce a financial package that tackles the high inflation rate, the dismal current account crisis, and the declining value of the lira and address the dramatic loss of confidence in the Turkish economy. 

The earthquake’s cost is estimated to be between 8 and 12 percent of GDP—an immense amount. Considering how poorly the Erdogan government performed after the quake, expectations that a new government will quickly rehabilitate its victims and the affected provinces’ infrastructure are bound to be high. However, such expenditures will collide with the introduction of more orthodox economic policies, including interest rate hikes. In such a challenging environment, the new government must win domestic support by becoming as transparent and truthful as possible in explaining its policies to a public that has lost faith during the last decade of Erdogan’s rule. 

The good news is that the Turkish manufacturing base is solid and capable; it needs to double its efforts at increasing and diversifying its exports, primarily geographically, and once again attracting direct foreign investment. Turkey’s advantageous location is conducive to landing some “friend-shoring” types of investments. Turkey will require sizeable foreign assistance to accomplish these and obtain restructuring funds; this support is likely to come mainly from the United States and Europe.

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The second challenge is executing a transition unlike any other in modern Turkey’s history. This is because, during his rule, Erdogan, the consummate populist-authoritarian politician, brought just about every state and societal institution of any significance under his domination. From the judicial system to the central bank, the public universities, most of the press, parliament, the military, and the bureaucracy were all stripped of their autonomy.

Yet, nothing can move forward without first reestablishing the rule of law; one cannot attract investments in an environment where legal norms are constantly violated. So how does the new government deal with pent-up expectations for redress and justice in a country where thousands have been imprisoned arbitrarily or dismissed from their jobs and professions? While 800 government officiald—including governors, ambassadors, heads of intelligence and religious affairs, and various agencies—will automatically lose their jobs, the judiciary and other critical institutions will continue to be run by Erdogan loyalists. So, the victorious coalition must devise an action plan to rebuild confidence in institutions.

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The third task is to create a coherent governing structure out of quite a disparate set of coalition allies and outside partners while tackling raw and divisive issues that separate them. Understandably, the focus will be on the promise to return to a parliamentary system and do away with the exiting hyper-presidential one. This gargantuan task will require careful planning and debate and a few years to accomplish.

The leader of the opposition, Kiliçdaroglu, is a well-meaning if unimaginative person who comes from a bureaucratic background. Nevertheless, he has outperformed all expectations by running an intelligent campaign and eschewing a calm and non-confrontational style. This is in stark contrast to Erdogan, who has gone out of his way to employ divisive rhetoric in which criticisms of the president were often deemed treasonous and meriting prosecution.

Kiliçdaroglu has projected himself as the ideal transitional leader; expansively viewed, the opposition has many rising charismatic stars all chomping at the bit to play a more significant role. While it may be problematic at the beginning of a new administration, their diversity in background, experience, and worldview will bring much-needed dynamism to Turkish politics. This needs to be improved on the government side; paradoxically, when he came to power in the early 2000s, Erdogan had amassed a wide-ranging group of seasoned political personalities and others from different walks of life. Unfortunately, over time they were all discarded in favor of “yes-men.”

One of the immediate challenges for the new government will be to manage the pent-up frustrations of supporters who feel they have been wronged during the very partisan governing style of the incumbent administration. For those who have been in Erdogan’s camp, even if they may have prepared themselves for a possible defeat, the fact remains that the rug will have been pulled from under them. Absent partisan institutions they can turn to for support, they will find themselves without protection and thus quite fearful of a coming reckoning for their future. These are businesspersons, especially builders who have been accused of corruption and favoritism; leaders of a slavishly pro-Erdogan press; judges and prosecutors who, under orders from the presidential palace, concocted fabulous conspiracy theories that “legitimized” the jailing of opponents; and unqualified university leaderships that ran amok firing professors deemed insufficiently loyal to the regime. The latter has already taken steps by surreptitiously creating positions for themselves in university systems.

The press, both state-owned and private, is a particularly thorny issue. The Erdogan government tried to starve the “non-loyal” outlets by forcing TV stations and websites to close down temporarily or preventing state entities, be they state-owned banks or ministries, from advertising in “opposition” newspapers. Meanwhile, it lavished attention and resources on members of the dominant pro-Erdogan press who actively collaborated in repressing regime opponents by heaping made-up accusations on them.

Will Erdogan, who has a large entourage to safeguard in addition to his family and his allies in the press, bureaucracy, and other sectors, pull a January 6 or try to delegitimize the elections? He tried it once when his party lost the Istanbul mayoralty in 2019 and fabricated an excuse to have the local elections repeated. It backfired on him as Istanbulites voted in much larger numbers for his opposition. Then the Supreme Electoral Council had no option but to follow Erdogan’s illegal wishes because he effectively yielded enormous power. This time, it may be different as members of the council are unlikely to risk their well-being if he proves unsuccessful in returning to power. Already, there are indications that some members of the Constitutional Court are willing to defy him.

Still, for the sake of a peaceful transition, the incoming government may want to consider coming up with an understanding with Erdogan and his family that offers them immunity and a promise that they will be left alone, provided he does not engage in election chicanery and interfere with the incoming government’s efforts to constitute an administration.

The new leadership will likely face unexpected challenges; different groups previously targeted by the Erdogan government can be expected to move quickly against their former tormentors once election results are announced. One can envisage, as an example, Bogazici University academics and students, who have maintained a vigil against Erdogan-appointed cadres that ransacked one of the country’s best educational institutions, attempting to take over the university forcibly. On the contrary, such events will likely be replicated nationwide.

Given the monumental domestic economic, political, and social issues awaiting the new government, it will likely focus on improving relations with the West, whose support Turkey desperately needs to fund the massive post-earthquake reconstruction efforts and stabilize the economy. Unfortunately, at this early stage, foreign policy disputes would divert attention and energy from the task at hand

At the top of the agenda is Sweden’s application to NATO which the Erdogan government has blocked because Stockholm has refused to extradite so-called terrorists. Not only does the opposition have a different outlook on this issue, but traditionally Turkey’s center-left has had a favorable view of Sweden. U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated that he wants to sell Ankara F-16 aircraft, especially in light of Turkey’s ejection from the fifth-generation F-35 fighter program following its acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Congress, however, is unlikely to approve any arms sales, F-16s in particular, and offer substantial support to Turkey if the veto on Sweden is maintained. The much thornier S-400 problem, for which no immediate solution exists, will have to await an imaginative answer. Therefore, a new Turkish government will have to kick this can down the road. 

Not everything will change in foreign policy; Turkey’s center-left has its nationalistic attitudes. Kilicdaroglu, once in power, will continue to pay lip service to traditional issues that have been the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy, such as Cyprus and the Aegean, absent Erdogan’s combative style. It is worth noting that since the earthquake, the Turkish Air Force has stopped overflying Greek islands for fear of antagonizing Western donors.

Kilicdaroglu will push to restore relations with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, especially if this would occasion some Syrian refugees' return. The recent “rapprochement” between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the apparent efforts at reintegrating Assad by Gulf countries may result in an attempt to end the Syrian stalemate. With Assad still firmly in power, Riyadh and Tehran could agree to enshrine the status quo, provided the regime makes some concessions. Given its support for the Syrian opposition and its military presence in northern Syria, Turkey’s participation would help ensure this agreement’s success.

Washington and Ankara are more likely to come to an agreement on the presence of U.S. forces stationed in northern Syria that partner with local Kurds in fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS. This had been a significant source of tension between the two countries.

Finally, Europe and the United States want to see Turkey reverse the path to authoritarianism under Erdogan. To this end, it is also in their interest to be as accommodating of a new government as possible.

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